When John F. Kerry rescued Jim Rassmann from the Bay Hap River in the jungles of Vietnam in March 1969, neither man could possibly have imagined that the episode would become a much-disputed focus of an American presidential campaign 35 years later.
For Kerry, then a green and gangly Navy lieutenant junior grade and now the Democratic challenger to a wartime Republican president, that tale of heroism under fire has become integral to his campaign. A centerpiece of public rallies, videos and a new campaign advertisement, it has helped distinguish the candidate from his Democratic primary rivals and from President Bush, who spent the war at home as a member of the Texas Air National Guard.
For the Massachusetts senator's critics, who include three of the five Swift boat skippers who were present that day, the incident demonstrates why Kerry does not deserve to be commander in chief. They accuse him of cowardice, hogging the limelight and lying. Far from displaying coolness under fire, they say, Kerry was never fired upon and fled the scene at the moment of maximum danger.
Establishing the facts is complicated not merely by fading memories and sometimes ambiguous archival evidence, but also by the bitterly partisan nature of the presidential campaign.
An investigation by The Washington Post into what happened that day suggests that both sides have withheld information from the public record and provided an incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate, picture of what took place. But although Kerry's accusers have succeeding in raising doubts about his war record, they have failed to come up with sufficient evidence to prove him a liar.
Two best-selling books have formed the basis for public discussion of the events of March 13, 1969, as a result of which Kerry won a Bronze Star and his third Purple Heart. The fullest account of Kerry's experience in Vietnam is "Tour of Duty" by prominent presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. It was written with Kerry's cooperation and with exclusive access to his diaries and other writings about the Vietnam War. "Unfit for Command," by John E. O'Neill, who succeeded Kerry as commander of his Swift boat, and Jerome R. Corsi, lays out a detailed attack on Kerry's record.
The Post's research shows that both accounts contain significant flaws and factual errors. This reconstruction of the climactic day in Kerry's military career is based on more than two dozen interviews with former crewmates and officers who served with him, as well as research in the Naval Historical Center here, where the Swift boat records are preserved. Kerry himself was the only surviving skipper on the river that day who declined a request for an interview.
On the core issue of whether Kerry was wounded under enemy fire, thereby qualifying for a third Purple Heart, the Navy records clearly favor Kerry. Several documents, including the after-action report and the Bronze Star citation for a Swift boat skipper who has accused Kerry of lying, refer to "all units" coming under "automatic and small-weapons fire."
The eyewitness accounts, on the other hand, are conflicting. Kerry's former crew members support his version, as does Rassmann, the Special Forces officer rescued from the river. But many of the other skippers and enlisted men who were on the river that day dispute Kerry's account and have signed up with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a public advocacy group that has aired television advertisements accusing Kerry of lying about his wartime service.
From an outsider's perspective, the flotilla of five 50-foot Swift boats that followed the Bay Hap River that humid March day has spawned two competing bands of brothers. One is fiercely loyal to Kerry and frequently appears with him at campaign events. The other dislikes him intensely and is doing everything it can to block his election.
Many Swift boat veterans opposed to Kerry acknowledge that their disgust with him was fueled by his involvement in the antiwar movement. When they returned from Vietnam, they say, they were dogged by accusations of atrocities. While Kerry went on to make a prominent political career, they got jobs as teachers, accountants, surveyors and oil field workers. When he ran for president, partly on the strength of his war record, their resentment exploded.
At one level, an attempt to establish what happened during a Vietcong ambush on the Bay Hap River 35 years ago is a simple search for facts. At another, it is the story of the divisions that tore the United States, and its armed forces, into two opposing camps at the time of the Vietnam War -- tensions that have resurfaced with a vengeance during the current political campaign.
"The old wounds have been reopened, and they still bleed," said Larry Thurlow, one of Kerry's accusers, who was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism for going to the rescue of a boat that was rocked by a mine explosion that day. He says he got involved with the anti-Kerry campaign organized by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth because Kerry's distortion of the truth about the Vietnam War "makes me madder than hell."
"We decided we aren't going to take it anymore."
Boats Thrown Into Fight
When Kerry signed up to command a Swift boat in the summer of 1968, he was inspired by the example of his hero, John F. Kennedy, who had commanded the PT-109 patrol boat in the Pacific in World War II. But Kerry had little expectation of seeing serious action. At the time the Swift boats -- or PCFs (patrol craft fast), in Navy jargon -- were largely restricted to coastal patrols. "I didn't really want to get involved in the war," Kerry wrote in a book of war reminiscences published in 1986.
The role of the Swift boats changed dramatically toward the end of 1968, when Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., commander of U.S. naval forces in South Vietnam, decided to use them to block Vietcong supply routes through the Mekong Delta. Hundreds of young men such as Kerry, with little combat experience, suddenly found themselves face to face with the enemy.
Taking a 50-foot aluminum boat up a river or canal was replete with danger, ranging from ambushes to booby traps to mines. Kerry and his comrades would experience all these risks on March 13, 1969. The purpose of the mission was twofold: to insert pro-government forces upriver in a group of Vietcong-controlled villages; and more generally to show the flag, keeping the waterways free for commerce.
In some ways, it was a day like any other. The previous day, Kerry had taken part in a Swift boat expedition that had come under fire, and several windows of Kerry's boat were blown out. A friend, Lt. j.g. William B. Rood, almost lost an eye in the ambush. [Now an editor with the Chicago Tribune, Rood yesterday broke three decades of public silence to support Kerry's version of how he won the Silver Star on Feb. 28. Rood has no firsthand knowledge of the Bronze Star incident.]
In other respects, March 13 would mark the culmination of Kerry's Vietnam War career. With three Purple Hearts, he became eligible for reassignment. Within three weeks, he was out of Vietnam and headed home after a truncated four-month combat tour.
As commander of PCF-94, Kerry was responsible for ferrying a group of Chinese Vietnamese mercenaries, known as Nung, eight miles up the Bay Hap River, and then five miles up the winding Dong Cung Canal to suspected Vietcong villages. His passengers included Rassmann, the Special Forces officer, who had run into Kerry at a party a couple of weeks before and remembered him as "a tall, skinny guy with this humongous jaw."
The expedition began to go wrong soon after they inserted the Nung troops into a deserted village off the Dong Cung Canal. As the mercenaries searched from house to house, Rassmann recalled, one reached for a cloth bag at the base of a coconut tree and was blown to pieces. It was a booby trap. Kerry, who arrived on the scene soon after, helped wrap the body in a poncho and drag it back to the boat, diving into a ditch when he thought he was under fire.
"I never want to see anything like it again," Kerry wrote later. "What was left was human, and yet it wasn't -- a person had been there only a few moments earlier and . . . now it was a horrible mass of torn flesh and broken bones."
In "Tour of Duty," these thoughts are attributed to a "diary" kept by Kerry. But the endnotes to Brinkley's book say that Kerry "did not keep diaries in these weeks in February and March 1969 when the fighting was most intense." In the acknowledgments to his book, Brinkley suggests that he took at least some of the passages from an unfinished book proposal Kerry prepared sometime after November 1971, more than two years after he had returned home from Vietnam.
In his book, Brinkley writes that a skipper who remains friendly to Kerry, Skip Barker, took part in the March 13 raid. But there is no documentary evidence of Barker's participation. Barker could not be reached for comment.
Brinkley, who is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, did not reply to messages left with his office, publisher and cell phone. The Kerry campaign has refused to make available Kerry's journals and other writings to The Post, saying the senator remains bound by an exclusivity agreement with Brinkley. A Kerry spokesman, Michael Meehan, said he did not know when Kerry wrote down his reminiscences.
As they were heading back to the boat, Kerry and Rassmann decided to blow up a five-ton rice bin to deny food to the Vietcong. In an interview last week, Rassmann recalled that they climbed on top of the huge pile and dug a hole in the rice. On the count of three, they tossed their grenades into the hole and ran.
Evidently, Kerry did not run fast enough. "He got some frags and pieces of rice in his rear end," Rassmann said with a laugh. "It was more embarrassing than painful." At the time, the incident did not seem significant, and Kerry did not mention it to anyone when he got back on the boat. An unsigned "personnel casualty report," however, erroneously implies that Kerry suffered "shrapnel wounds in his left buttocks" later in the day, following the mine explosion incident, when he also received "contusions to his right forearm."
Anti-Kerry veterans have accused Kerry of conflating the two injuries to strengthen his case for a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Kerry's Bronze Star citation, however, refers only to his arm injury.
At 2:45 p.m., according to Navy records, Kerry was joined by four other Swift boats for the Bay Hap trip. Kerry led the way on the right-hand side of the river, in PCF-94, followed 15 yards behind by one of his best friends in Vietnam, Don Droz, in PCF-43. A procession of three boats on the left side of the river was led by Richard Pees on PCF-3, followed by Jack Chenoweth on PCF-23 and Thurlow on PCF-51.
Ahead of them was a fishing weir, a series of wooden posts across the river. That morning, the Swiftees had noticed Vietnamese children in sampans attaching nets to the posts and had thought little of it. To get through the weir, their boats had to pass to the left or to the right of the fishing nets.
Just as the Kerry and Pees boats reached the weir, there was a devastating explosion, lifting Pees's boat, PCF-3, three feet out of the water.
Witness Accounts Diverge
"My God, I've never seen anything like it," Chenoweth wrote in what he says is a diary recorded soon after the events. "There was a fantastic flash, a boom, then the 3 boat disappeared in a fountain of water and debris. I was only 30 yards behind." Assuming that they had run into a Vietcong ambush, Chenoweth wrote, "we unleashed everything into the banks."
A later intelligence report established that the mine was probably detonated by a Vietcong sympathizer in a foxhole who hit a plunger as the Swift boats passed through the fishing weir.
Aboard the 3 boat, Pees remembered in an interview being "thrown up in the air" into the windscreen of his pilothouse and landing "kind of dazed," his legs numb, lap covered with blood. When it was over, Pees and three members of his crew would be medevaced to a Coast Guard cutter offshore with serious head and back injuries.
"When the mine went off, we were still going full speed," recalled Michael Medeiros, one of Kerry's crew members. Kerry's boat raced off down the river, away from the ambush zone.
It is at this point that the eyewitness accounts begin to diverge sharply. Everybody agrees that a mine exploded under the 3 boat. There is no argument that Rassmann fell into the river and that Kerry fished him out. Nor is there any dispute that Kerry was hurt in the arm, although the anti-Kerry camp claims he exaggerated the nature of his injury. Much else is hotly contested.
When the first explosion occurred, Rassmann was seated next to the pilothouse on the starboard, or right, side of Kerry's boat, munching a chocolate chip cookie that he recalls having "ripped off from someone's Care package." He saw the 3 boat lift out of the water. Almost simultaneously, Kerry's forward gunner, Tommy Belodeau, began screaming for a replacement for his machine gun, which had jammed. Rassmann grabbed an M-16 and worked his way sideways along the deck, which was only seven inches wide in places.
At this point, Kerry crew members say their boat was hit by a second explosion. Although Kerry's injury report speaks of a mine that "detonated close aboard PCF-94," helmsman Del Sandusky believes it was more likely a rocket or rocket-propelled grenade, as a mine would have inflicted more damage. Whatever it was, the explosion rammed Kerry into the wall of his pilothouse, injuring his right forearm.
The second explosion "blew me right off the boat," Rassmann recalled. Frightened that he might be struck by the propellers of one of the boats, he dived to the bottom of the river, where he dumped his weapons and rucksack. When he surfaced, he said, bullets were "snapping overhead," as well as hitting the water around him.
At first, nobody noticed what had happened to Rassmann. But then Medeiros, who was standing at the stern, saw him bobbing up and down in the water and shouted, "Man overboard." Around this time, crew members said, Kerry decided to go back to help the crippled 3 boat. It is unclear how far down the river Kerry's boat was when he turned around. It could have been anywhere from a few hundred yards to a mile.
O'Neill claims that Kerry "fled the scene" despite the absence of hostile fire. Kerry, in a purported journal entry cited in Brinkley's "Tour of Duty," maintains that he wanted to get his troops ashore "on the outskirts of the ambush."
The Kerry/Rassmann version of what happened next has been retold many times, in TV advertisements and campaign appearances: Rassmann struggling to climb up a scramble net, Kerry leaning over the bow of the boat and pulling him up with his injured arm. As Kerry later recalled, in notes cited by Brinkley, "Somehow we got him on board and I didn't get the bullet in the head that I expected, and we managed to move down near the 3 boat that was still crawling a snail-like zig-zag through the river."
Rassmann remembers several boats coming back up the river toward him. But Chenoweth believes that the rescue must have taken place fairly close to the other boats, which had been drifting slowly downriver. In his diary, he said, he wrote that "we spotted a man overboard, started to pick him up, but 94 [Kerry's boat] got there first."
While Kerry was rescuing Rassmann, the other Swift boats had gone to the assistance of Pees and the 3 boat. Thurlow, in particular, distinguished himself by leaping onto the 3 boat and administering first aid, according to his Bronze Star citation. At one point, he, too, was knocked overboard when the boat hit a sandbar, but he was rescued by crewmates.
The Kerry and anti-Kerry camps differ sharply on whether the flotilla came under enemy fire after the explosion that crippled the 3 boat. Everybody aboard Kerry's boat, including Rassmann, says there was fire from both riverbanks, and the official after-action report speaks of all boats receiving "heavy a/w [automatic weapons] and s/a [small arms] from both banks." The Bronze Star citations for Kerry and Thurlow also speak of prolonged enemy fire.
A report on "battle damage" to Thurlow's boat mentions "three 30 cal bullet holes about super structure." According to Thurlow, at least one of the bullet holes was the result of action the previous day, when he ran into another Vietcong ambush.
Thurlow, Chenoweth, Pees and several of their crew members who belong to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth say neither they nor Kerry came under fire. "If there was fire, I would have made some notation in my journal," Chenoweth said. "But it didn't happen that way. There wasn't any fire." Although he read his diary entry to a reporter over the phone, he declined to supply a copy.
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Rassmann said, "are not just questioning Kerry's account, they are questioning my account. I take that very personally. No one can tell me that we were not under fire. I saw it, I heard the splashes, and I was scared to death. For them to come back 35 years after the fact to tarnish not only Kerry's record, but my veracity, is unconscionable."
Until now, eyewitness evidence supporting Kerry's version had come only from his own crewmen. But yesterday, The Post independently contacted a participant who has not spoken out so far in favor of either camp who remembers coming under enemy fire. "There was a lot of firing going on, and it came from both sides of the river," said Wayne D. Langhofer, who manned a machine gun aboard PCF-43, the boat that was directly behind Kerry's.
Langhofer said he distinctly remembered the "clack, clack, clack" of enemy AK-47s, as well as muzzle flashes from the riverbanks. Langhofer, who now works at a Kansas gunpowder plant, said he was approached several months ago by leaders of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth but declined their requests to speak out against Kerry.
Who Initialed Navy Report?
Much of the debate over who is telling the truth boils down to whether the two-page after-action report and other Navy records are accurate or whether they have been embellished by Kerry or someone else. In "Unfit for Command," O'Neill describes the after-action report as "Kerry's report." He contends that language in Thurlow's Bronze Star citation referring to "enemy bullets flying about him" must also have come from "Kerry's after-action report."
O'Neill has said that the initials "KJW" on the bottom of the report "identified" it as having been written by Kerry. It is unclear why this should be so, as Kerry's initials are JFK. A review of other Swift boat after-action reports at the Naval Historical Center here reveals several that include the initials "KJW" but describe incidents at which Kerry was not present.
Other Swift boat veterans, including Thurlow and Chenoweth, have said they believe that Kerry wrote the March 13 report. "I didn't like to write reports," said Thurlow, who was the senior officer in the five-boat flotilla. "John would write the thing up in longhand, and it would then be typed up and sent up the line."
Even if Kerry did write the March 13 after-action report, it seems unlikely that he would have been the source of the information about "enemy bullets" flying around Thurlow. The official witness to those events, according to Thurlow's medal recommendation form, was his own leading petty officer, Robert Lambert, who himself won a Bronze Star for "courage under fire" in going to Thurlow's rescue after he fell into the river. Lambert, who lives in California, declined to comment.
In a telephone interview, the head of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, retired Adm. Roy Hoffmann, who commanded all Swift boats in Vietnam, said he believed that Kerry wrote the March 13 after-action report on the basis of numerical identifiers at the top of the form. He later acknowledged that the numbers referred to the Swift boat unit, and not to Kerry personally. "It's not cast-iron," he said.
Some of the mystery surrounding exactly what happened on the Bay Hap River in March 1969 could be resolved by the full release of all relevant records and personal diaries. Much information is available from the Web sites of the Kerry campaign and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and the Navy archives. But both the Kerry and anti-Kerry camps continue to deny or ignore requests for other relevant documents, including Kerry's personal reminiscences (shared only with biographer Brinkley), the boat log of PCF-94 compiled by Medeiros (shared only with Brinkley) and the Chenoweth diary.
Although Kerry campaign officials insist that they have published Kerry's full military records on their Web site (with the exception of medical records shown briefly to reporters earlier this year), they have not permitted independent access to his original Navy records. A Freedom of Information Act request by The Post for Kerry's records produced six pages of information. A spokesman for the Navy Personnel Command, Mike McClellan, said he was not authorized to release the full file, which consists of at least a hundred pages.
Some Felt Betrayed
Kerry's reunion with Rassmann in January this year, nearly 35 years after he pulled the former Green Beret from the river, was a defining moment of his presidential campaign. Many political observers believed that the images of the two men embracing helped Kerry win the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The "No Man Left Behind" theme has become a recurring image of pro-Kerry advertising.
But many of the men Kerry served with in Vietnam feel betrayed and left behind by him. Soon after Kerry returned to the United States, he began organizing antiwar rallies. Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, he appeared to endorse accusations that U.S. troops in Vietnam had committed war crimes "with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."
The anti-Kerry veterans began mobilizing earlier this year, following publication of the Brinkley biography and the nationwide publicity given to Kerry's emotional reunion with Rassmann. Many of the veterans were contacted personally by Hoffmann, a gung-ho naval officer compared unflatteringly in "Tour of Duty" to the out-of-control lieutenant colonel in the movie "Apocalypse Now" who talked about how he loved "the smell of napalm in the morning."
Hoffmann, who was already angry with Kerry for his antiwar activities on his return from Vietnam, said in an interview that he was "appalled" to find out from reading "Tour of Duty" that Kerry was "considered to be a Navy hero." "I thought there was a tremendous amount of gross exaggeration in the book and, in some places, downright lies. So I started contacting some of my former shipmates," he said.
One of the men Hoffmann contacted was O'Neill, a longtime Kerry critic who debated Kerry on television in 1971. O'Neill put Hoffmann in touch with some wealthy Republican Party contributors. One of O'Neill's contacts was Texas millionaire Bob Perry, who has contributed $200,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Perry has also contributed to the Bush campaign.
"I'd met him three or four times and represented people he knew," said O'Neill, who has practiced law in Houston for nearly 30 years.
In addition to helping to organize the anti-Kerry campaign, O'Neill wrote his own book about the senator's wartime record, which soared to the top of the Amazon.com best-seller list before its publication earlier this month.
With the exception of a sailor named Stephen Gardner, who served with Kerry in late 1968 on PCF-44, Kerry's own crew members have remained loyal to him. "If it wasn't for some of his decisions, we would probably be some of the names in that wall," said Gene Thorson, the engineman on PCF-94, referring to the Vietnam War Memorial. "I respect him very much."
Others who served on boats that operated alongside Kerry on that fateful day in March 1969 say they cannot stand the man who is now challenging George W. Bush for the presidency.
"I think that Kerry's behavior was abominable," said Pees, the commander of the boat that hit the mine. "His actions after the war were particularly disgusting. He distorted the truth when he talked about atrocities. We went out of our way to protect civilians. To suggest otherwise is a grotesque lie. As far as I am concerned, he did not speak the truth about how we conducted operations in Vietnam."
"A lot of people just can't forgive and forget," countered Kerry crew member Medeiros. "He was a great commander. I would have no trouble following him anywhere."
Staff writer Linton Weeks contributed to this report.